Thursday, March 15, 2007

Online Politics in 2008: The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown

Elliot Schrage gave the Keynote address here in the Grand Ballroom, heralding a mutually beneficial relationship between his company, Google, and the political campaign networks. "We want to learn from you," he says. No one in the room needed any convincing that in the Makaka era, the internet has totally revolutionized politics, but he provided even more overwhelming evidence both in the stat that $40 million dollars was used towards online campaigning in 2006 (set to double for 2008) and with a montage of YouTube clips attesting to the political power of the web video image. There was the "I Feel Pretty" John Edwards clip, Hillary Clinton murdering the National Anthem, and even a clever satire of attack ads featuring two toddlers vying for the presidency of pre-school.

Schrage noted, interestingly, that despite not being a partisan entity, Google IS itself actually an inherently political endeavor in that it is committed to providing public information, and through users is committed to democratizing political dialogue. The internet provides innumerable benefits to better political discourse, Schrage asserted, including but not limited to transparency (in that voters can see candidates how they really are), accountability (through fact-checking capability), fundraising (just click to contribute), access (through social networking sites like Facebook), and spawning the very companies that were tabling at the Conference.

Schrage spent much time, both in the latter part of his speech and during the Q&A, contemplating the blurry boundaries between the internet as a wellspring of public information, free expression, and legitimate political discussion, and its dangerous potential to enable the tabloidization of all these things. Google has of course become the nexus of this paradigm, in that it faces daily questions as to where to impose limits; as an example, Schrage noted a lamentable online video about John Edwards' son that Google nonetheless chose to treat as any other video. Schrage mentioned some of the other sensitive subjects of this plane of the debate, some more serious than others: Google-bombing, fraudulent clicking, the potential rise of political spyware and (laughably, I would say) political gawker sites as well as the GPS tracking of candidates.

When pressed about the traps of misinformation available on the internet, Schrage asserted that Google was not in the business of fact-checking (despite another audience member pointing out that a Google CEO had recently announced that they were developing software to do that very thing). "This kind of thing is eventually self-policing," he posited. Unfortunately, the rest of the audience questions followed this lead and attempted to get juicy but irrelevant tidbits of Google gossip, regarding the company's deal in China, its relationship with the Dalai Lama, and the recent law suit against them filed by Viacom.

In general, the speech was an enlightening expose of the newest issues emerging at the intersection of politics and the internet, now that the two are inextricably linked.

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